Japanese American Identity in 2020
In celebration of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month in May, we asked a few local Japanese Americans to comment on their thoughts on identity in today’s world. They represent unique backgrounds and generations, varying from Nisei to Yonsei. Please see selections from the interviews below.
To view additional content for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month:
- Click here here for a program on Japanese American internment and the fight for reparations
- Click here here for a virtual film showcase highlighting Japanese American leaders
- Click here here for a video on Japanese American history and cuisine
Nicole Ideno (left) is a student at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. She is studying political science and public policy with a minor in economics.
Julia Wada (center) is Group Vice President, Human Resources and Business Technology Solutions at Toyota Financial Services. She serves on the Japan-America Society of Dallas/Fort Worth’s Board of Directors.
Harvey Yamagata (right) is a Partner at Buxton Company. He also serves as the President of the Fort Worth Japanese Society and he is a member of the Board of Trustees of the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles. On behalf of the Fort Worth Japanese Society, he accepted the Bridges to Friendship Award in 2016 from the Japan-America Society of Dallas/Fort Worth.
Where did your ancestors come from in Japan and when did they immigrate to the
As a Yonsei, or fourth-generation Japanese American, I was born and raised in Irvine, California. Likewise, my mother was born in San Diego, California and my father in Temple City, California. My parents met during their junior year of college at the University of California, Los Angeles. On my mother’s side, my grandfather was born in Los Angeles and raised in San Diego. Meanwhile, my grandmother immigrated to the United States in 1959 from Hiroshima. She moved here soon after she met my grandfather during one of his trips to Japan. On my father’s side, my grandmother was also born in Los Angeles and my grandfather, who is a kibei (Japanese American born in the U.S. who returned to America after receiving their education in Japan), was born in San Francisco, moved to Ehime Ken in Japan for elementary school, then returned back to the United States in 1949 to complete his high school education in Chicago, Illinois. After years of traveling around the country, he landed in Pasadena, California where he eventually met my grandmother in 1958.
On my father’s side of the family, my grandparents immigrated from Kyushu in the 1920s to the South Bay in California, where they owned a small grocery store before the war. They were incarcerated at Gila River Internment camp in Arizona and lost everything they had in California. My father was twelve. My mother was born in Japan, grew up in the Tokyo area, and immigrated after the war. They met in Northern California, where I was born and raised.
My father, Tadashi Yamagata came from Bofu, Japan (Yamaguchi prefecture). The family of my mother, Elaine Yoko Yamao, is from Kure, Japan (Hiroshima prefecture). Her family immigrated to the U.S. around 1920 and she was born in Walnut Grove, California in 1922. When she was about 17, she and her family returned to Kure, Japan. After marrying, and after WWII, my father and mother immigrated to the U.S. in 1951 and remained in the U.S. permanently, with the exception of their many travels abroad.
What Japanese and American family traditions did you have while young, and which do you continue today?
Growing up in a household that predominantly adheres to American values and practices, our family traditions revolve around American holidays. However, some Japanese traditions that my parents integrated into my life early on were the celebrations of Girls’ Day and Japanese New Year (Shogatsu). On Girls’ Day, I’ll never forget the excitement I felt waking up to my grandparents’ visiting and bringing with them my favorite Japanese treats such as chirashizushi and chi chi dango mochi.
When I was younger, Japanese New Year was the one time a year that I was allowed to stay up past midnight during New Year’s Eve, enjoying a bowl of soba noodles after watching the Times Square Ball Drop on television. I would fall asleep late that night anxiously awaiting the next morning, which we would kick off with my father’s famous New Year’s soup (ozoni). Later in the day, we would host a Japanese dinner feast with all my cousins, aunts, and uncles, filled with dishes such as sushi, black soybeans (kuromame), and decorative fish cakes (kamaboko). Today, my family continues to celebrate Japanese New Year in our new home in Frisco, Texas. During those years that we cannot make a trip back to California to celebrate with extended family, we still begin our New Year’s morning with my father’s ozoni. Then, we sometimes go to a family friend’s house for a Japanese New Year potluck or have a small shabu shabu dinner at home with just our family.
Growing up, we celebrated both Japanese and American holidays. The most “Japanese” was always New Year’s Day when we went to my grandparents and had lots of delicious homemade Japanese foods. My grandmother was the daughter of a sweet-maker, and she always made kuri-manju. I wish I had the recipe! When I was young, we also celebrated Boys and Girls days which I remember mostly by the photos of us dressed in kimono, the Japanese dolls, and the flying koi flags. We also ate nearly every meal with “gohan”, even things like spaghetti. Food was really the core of our Japanese-ness. In addition, my mother is a sumi-e artist and teacher and is very talented with flower arrangement and tea ceremony, so I grew up exposed to those things. I also went to Japanese school on Saturday mornings.
My brother and I both have Japanese middle names, and now my children also have Japanese middle names, which my mother helped to select. Today, I think food is where my family most relates to being Japanese American. When my children were younger and both my parents were alive, we would always celebrate New Year’s by going out for Japanese food together. Where we lived in Los Angeles, there were restaurants that served osechi-ryori (traditional New Year’s meals). I haven’t found that yet in this area so if anyone has any recommendations, please let me know! As in my household growing up, our rice cooker, is an essential product and some of my kids’ favorite meals are Japanese.
Because my mother was born in and lived in California until she was 16 or 17, and my father was very much Japanese in character, our family was exposed to both cultures. However, living in the U.S., we were very much American and did not practice Japanese traditions. The greatest influence made on me is perhaps the character displayed by my father. He was very much a disciplinarian, had an exceptional work ethic, and was quite humble. This last trait was a bit lacking in me, which I attribute to just being “Americanized.”
Which Japanese American leaders – local or national – have influenced you in your life and which traits about them do you most admire?
One Japanese American female leader who I grew up watching on television as a child, and who I still admire greatly today, is Kristi Yamaguchi. In 2008, when I was still a ballet and jazz dancer myself, I remember watching Kristi, an Olympian, also compete on Dancing with the Stars. I remember being in total awe as I would watch her perform because it was so rare to see a female Asian American athlete on television. As I grew older, I began to learn more about her philanthropic endeavors outside of her professional skating career, especially with her Always Dream Foundation. Despite my dancing career coming to an end at a fairly young age, my passions shifted, and I grew more inspired by her dedication to the community and support of underprivileged children. Not long after finishing elementary school, my mother learned of a non-profit organization in our local community of Irvine, called the Assistance League. Soon after joining the organization, I started to volunteer, organizing kits with school supplies and other essential goods for underprivileged kids in the Irvine area, and I eventually moved into a leadership position. I saw how Kristi not only defined her career as a successful Japanese American professional figure skater, but also served as a leader within her community. Similarly, I hoped to discover philanthropic endeavors in my community.
I had the opportunity to work with Irene Hirano when she was part of Toyota’s Diversity Advisory Board in the 2000s. She was always an absolute pleasure to work with, and I found her grace and wisdom inspiring, especially the way she was able to encourage people’s thinking without being confrontational. I also had the opportunity to meet Norman Mineta a couple years ago through an APAICS (Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies) event. He reminded me a lot of my father, who was a similar age when he was incarcerated in Arizona. Where I grew up in northern California, Norman had such a big impact. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I realize now, that he was a role model for me. What I didn’t really understand as a young person is what a pioneer he was – for example, he was the first Asian American to hold a presidential cabinet post, first as Secretary of Commerce for President Clinton and then as Secretary of Transportation for President Bush. He was instrumental in the passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. What I experienced was that it was normal to see a Japanese American in a leadership role, representing everyone. He is a great communicator, a driver of change, and has made the world a better place with his efforts.
My parents were quite exceptional and accomplished a great deal in their lives, both in business and in their personal pursuits. This is why they remain my most admired Japanese American leaders. Starting with very little, they built a highly successful business and had important roles in the development of marketing Japanese-made consumer electronics products in the U.S. Outside of business, they contributed a great deal to their community, with exceptional contributions to the relationship between Japan and the U.S. My father was recognized by the Emperor of Japan for his contribution to the Japanese electronics industry, and my mother was recognized for her contribution to enhancing the Japan-U.S. relationship.
Outside my family, the Japanese American leaders I most admire are the late Senator Daniel Inouye and the Honorable Norman Mineta. The bravery Senator Inouye displayed as a soldier in the U.S. military’s 442nd Regimental Combat Team – how he lost his arm while destroying two machine gun nests that had pinned down his men – is enough to inspire anyone. The pinnacle of his senatorial career was as the President Pro Tempore of the Senate, making him at the time, third in line to the U.S. presidency. The characteristic I find most admirable about Norman Mineta is his ability to work with differing peoples, enabling him to serve in cabinet positions for a Democratic president, Bill Clinton, and for a Republican president, George W. Bush. I met these men in their later years and was fortunate enough to work with both because of my association with the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles.
In your opinion, what defines being Japanese American in the 21st century?
When I think about what it means to me to be a Japanese American citizen in the 21st century, I think about the possibilities in life, both personal and professional, that have been afforded to me as a forthcoming of the hardships and grievances that my grandparents and great-grandparents endured during their lifetimes. Both my paternal grandmother and maternal grandfather, along with their parents and siblings, were uprooted from their homes as young children. They were then placed in the Japanese internment camps only to return to ransacked houses and businesses that were no longer theirs to own. I admire the resilience that my grandparents and their families possessed to rebuild their lives from the ground up following these adversities, as well as their encouraging my parents to pursue higher education degrees. As a result, I take each opportunity in stride that comes with being an American citizen, including my education, internships, and volunteer work. I don’t shy away from my Japanese heritage and the hardships that my ancestors faced to provide my parents and me these great opportunities. Instead, I work hard to embody the young, self-sufficient, female Japanese American that my family can proudly call their own.
I don’t think there is one definition of being Japanese American. We are all individuals. At the same time, my Japanese heritage is a big part of my identity. It explains why I like the taste of certain things and not others. It helps me understand the values with which I was raised and why. It connects me to a community with shared experiences. It helps me to relate to people on the other side of the world in Japan. Japanese Americans represent a relationship between two countries that have had big ups and downs over time, but today is about moving forward in partnership with the common belief in our people and the positive role our two countries play in our world.
This is a very difficult to answer because there is too much ground to cover. Here’s an attempt – How we behave and perform. I consider it essential that Japanese Americans are regarded well by the community. This sets the standard for other Japanese Americans, especially the young, to emulate or exceed. I observe this as a problem with many other ethnic groups, resulting in social discord. How can you expect others to act appropriately if you’re not helping to set high standards? How we think: It’s important to remember the history of Japanese Americans in America and the injustice they suffered during WWII. Remembering is partly to honor their past struggles and perseverance, but more so to bear in mind that what we enjoy should not be taken for granted. Never deny your heritage or blame failures on your ethnicity. Be proud of being a Japanese American, be respectful of all other ethnicities, and share each other’s culture.